Plato and Education

Plato, in *Republic, *refers to education as being one way to prevent ruin to a person’s soul. He uses an analogy of a city to determine what justice and injustice are in an individual person. Plato’s explanation of how rulers should live their lives and how education should be conducted to benefit the most people is worth paying attention to, but does not seem to agree with the way these things are conducted in today’s free market economy. In spite of the fact that modern education seems to be motivated by wealth and reputation, education is still the primary remedy for selfishness and injustice of society, but it is necessary to understand education as an ordering of values rather than a mere certification of knowledge.

“But if they acquire private land, houses, and currency themselves, they’ll be household managers and farmers instead of guardians—hostile masters of the other citizens instead of their allies. They’ll spend their whole lives hating and being hated, plotting and being plotted against, more afraid of internal than external enemies, and they’ll hasten both themselves and the whole city to almost immediate ruin” (Plato 93). In the above passage, Plato warns that rulers should have no property rights and possess no money as proof that they have developed sound reasoning capacity. By having as rulers only those who have been educated from childhood in music and poetry, athletics and physical strengthening, and those who are able to subordinate their bodily appetites and reputation to reason and rationale, a just city will be able to minimize and deal with threats—from both within and without the city—to its peace and freedom. Plato defines justice in a city as each person performing that task for which he or she is best suited for, since a person produces the best output when doing the task he or she is most suited for. An unjust city is one that is constantly striving for more and more luxuries and wealth to acquire material possessions. Because the rulers of the unjust city will be advancing their own wealth and material possessions at the expense of the population, the people will be unhappy, always at war with other nations to acquire more goods, and at war among themselves in pursuit of greater material wealth. Such a city will contain many forms of vice, which will make people even less happy with their situation.

Plato’s hypothesis of the just and unjust city is intended to define justice and lack of justice in an individual soul. The soul, when used by Plato, means the psyche, or thinking part of a human. Plato explains the soul as having three parts: the appetite, a spirited part, and a calculating rational part. The appetite part is that which hunger and thirst stem from—the part that wants basic pleasures such as food and drink. In a city, the appetite part would be the producers of goods, the farmers, and those who labor for money. The spirited parts of a city are the merchants, teachers, mathematicians, and other people with knowledge on a variety of topics. Spirit within a soul is that part which contains tastes and preferences for certain types of pleasures at different times and that part which is motivated by reputation and wealth. The most advanced part of the soul is the calculating part, which calculates rationally the tastes and desires of the spirited and appetitive parts and objectively chooses which ones to satisfy. The calculating part of a city consists of the rulers and those who are able to make objective decisions for the good of all rather than letting their appetite for wealth and reputation rule their actions.

A city that is ruled by the appetitive and spirited part will advance only their own interests of wealth and reputation at the expense of others; this situation will lead to destruction and ruin of a city or person. Plato says the just city or person has a fully developed calculating part of the soul and has power over the appetitive and spirited parts.

The warning Plato issues about rulers not having material possessions is an appropriate one, but one that, I think, has a few flaws. Becoming a ruler, even Plato would say, is a lengthy process, and not everyone who completes the process will be fit to be a ruler. Ruling is something that begins with small responsibilities, with the ruler becoming more and more influential as time progresses. Since it is clearly impractical for a society to support and house all potential rulers without allowing them personal material possessions from childhood on, when would the transition to a society-supported ruler be effective? Would it be with their earliest responsibility, or would it take place only when they held the highest position? In today’s society personal responsibility and moderation is often measured by how successful one is at maximizing material wealth. It seems impractical to expect a ruler to forego all material possessions in order to be qualified to rule over others.

As the best kind of remedy for the condition leading to ruin of a city/soul, Plato states that “they must have the right education, whatever it is, if they are to have what will most make them gentle to each other and to those they are guarding” (Plato 92). The education model he puts forth begins in childhood with learning music and poetry, then by learning physical fitness, calculation and mathematics, and finishes with mastering reason and holding sway over the bodily appetites for reputation and wealth. Plato states that education is not “namely, putting knowledge into souls that lack it, like putting sight into blind eyes” (Plato 190), but that “education takes for granted that sight is there but that it isn’t turned the right way or looking where it ought to look, and it tries to redirect it appropriately” (Plato 190). I agree with Plato that the purpose of education should be not the cramming of knowledge into one’s brain, but rather the enlightenment that comes from being able to moderate appetitive desires in order to achieve greater intellectual pleasures.

I also agree with Plato’s view of education being a remedy to prevent the ruin of a city, but only insofar that education should be available to those who seek it. I don’t think it is reasonable to expect a state to provide an education system that will properly educate all who pass through it unless an exhaustive method for determining eligibility and levels of education could somehow be found. An obvious downside to a comprehensive state-provided education is the potential to advance the interests of the rulers by limiting free thought of individuals.

I think Plato’s definition of education is valid today, and students do well to consider all an education entails. Modern universities provide an adequate education if the student applies him or herself to the coursework and studies a wide variety of subjects. By studying, I mean going beyond what it takes to get an A grade for the class and understanding the underlying concepts of the material and applying them to daily life. The topics in art, music, ethics, and cultural understanding offered today align well with Plato’s view of education if they are studied with diligence. These subjects should be regarded as the core of an education rather than compulsory non-related courses in a major.

Within the student there needs to be a certain maturity or development level before higher education at a college level is pursued. I agree with Plato that an education begins early, and in order to get the most out of a college education I think the student should already have developed reasoning capacity and the ability to subordinate appetitive and spirited desires in some degree to reason. A student entering the university environment without an understanding of moderation and subordination of appetite will likely fail to learn this while in college. Furthermore, I don’t think it is fair to place all the blame for the association of wealth with education on universities. In a free market society universities will provide what people want to pay for, therefore, it appears parents and students, more so than universities, are to blame for not heeding Plato’s warning.

Works Cited

Plato. Republic. Trans. G.M.A. Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992.

This was a final paper for philosophy class on the relationship between an education today and Plato’s definition of an education.

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